Frank Floor Talk: Innovator Joe Kaminkow looks back – and to the future

February 28, 2023 8:00 AM
  • John G. Brokopp, CDC Gaming Reports
February 28, 2023 8:00 AM
  • John G. Brokopp, CDC Gaming Reports

In spite of being the recipient of every accolade and hall of fame induction imaginable for his contributions to the slot machine component of the gaming industry over the past two decades, there is much more to Joe Kaminkow than binary codes and algorithms.

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Joe Kaminkow

His appreciation for the arts and letters, which is the foundation supporting his expertise in the technological side of the games people play, makes Kaminkow truly comfortable with the title of Chief Innovation Officer for Aristocrat Gaming.

By definition, to innovate is to “make changes in something established, especially by including new methods, ideas, or products.” It is precisely what Kaminkow has done his entire career, fueled by his passion for life and his ability to tap into imagination.

Joe’s own imagination is home to a career-long fascination with the movie franchise “Back to the Future.” His creativity revolving around the iconic trilogy of motion pictures began during the pinball chapter of his life, continued with the video game phase, hit full stride when he burst onto the gaming scene, and continues to this day, soon to be on Broadway.

But more about that later.

Today Kaminkow describes his nine-year association with Aristocrat Gaming as a “wonderful, wonderful experience with a great company.” He proudly said that Aristocrat truly has been a leader in technology during his time with them.

In a curious way, Joe could have been looked upon as a visitor from the future himself when he stepped out of his “time machine” and first walked into the gaming industry doors .

“Going back to that timeframe, it was around 1999, the slot business was probably, technically, more than a decade behind where the video game business was,” Kaminkow recalled.

“When I first came on board, the technology for video graphics on video games was at about the 1984–1985 level, where you had 16 or 32 color palettes you could swap out. I was doing a million polygons a second with a million colors a second at Sega, just to give you an idea.”

Joe reminisced that the march toward PC-based game creation was huge, “trying not only to bring the technology that we already had into the business, but also the creative opportunities of adding more sound, more interactivity, more speech, active reel video, and bringing computer control and better lighting to reel spinners.”

“Making the touch screens clearer, etiquette clean-up, things that were apparent, because the business that I was in seemed to be a pace further ahead,” he continued.

“In time we were on a parity with, or had even eclipsed, what a video game is. Back then, it was like the stuff I was doing in 1982, only it was 1999. It was not hard for me to think, ‘hmmm, this is where we could go, and then we kind of got there.”

The conversation brought Joe’s “time machine of the mind” back to the present, where he was asked if new frontiers to explore with Aristocrat Gaming are becoming fewer and farther between.

“Oh, my goodness, heck no,” he exclaimed. “We are just getting started! The more computer power and lighting technology changes, the more advanced things we can do. Working in partnership with regulators, we have new opportunities to come up with new creative things. I am as excited today as I was in 1999.

“Especially I am excited about Aristocrat because Aristocrat, compared with other companies I’ve ever worked with, really invests heavily on talent such as designers and engineers. A lot of people I used to work with at other companies work with me now at Aristocrat, which gives them more creative freedom.”

Kaminkow characterized his creative team’s genius as “everyone competing internally with one another while at the same time helping each other, which is a great thing.”

“We’re pushing and pulling, trying to make the best product in the market,” he explained. “I think with the financial commitment that’s made to research and development, any operator should be really comfortable buying our product with us making so much content for the different boxes we create.”

With that, Joe signaled it was time to hop aboard his time machine again, not for a long trip but for a visit into the not-too-distant future.

“Our new NFL game is maybe the largest game we’re ever going to submit to a regulator, because it’s got all 32 teams incorporated into it,” he revealed. “Imagine, 32 symbols, 32 sets of sound and graphics…I could go on and on.”

Joe said that the plan, if all goes well, is to introduce the NFL games in casinos to coincide in fall 2023.

The present for Aristocrat Gaming includes one of the most successful slot games in history, the iconic “Buffalo” franchise. Kaminkow acknowledged that the Buffalos began stampeding in casinos before he came to Aristocrat – which does not mean that his creative talent hasn’t contributed to the unrivaled success of the electronic thundering herds across slot floors world-wide.

“I’ve looked at the games and made some suggestions,” he said. “More importantly, the newer hardware we created and the newer form-factors for cabinets allowed our game design teams and designers to really maximize the brand and bring it to the consumer in entirely new ways that gave us a much bigger creative palette to create better things.”

Kaminkow likes to say, in his inimitable artistic parlance, that he supplied some extra paint, brushes, and canvasses for the artists that work in game design to open the doors to create better things for what has paid great dividends across the board for the company.

“A couple of things happen with a game sometimes,” Kaminkow continued. “Buffalo came along at the right time and had the right volatility.”

He explained that, every now and then, you make a game like Buffalo that creates a massive fan base of people who have had a winning experience or good experiences.

“It kind of snowballs and builds off itself,” he explained further. “Buffalo is one of those games in the marketplace with lots of variants. Maybe the sound was just right, the speech was just right.

“I’ve often said I’ve seen the same math model on a stepper reel with the same sound and programming, but different art, perform really well, and different art perform really poorly. Buffalo has that entertainment value, combined with that multiplier, and the sound of ‘BUFFALO!”

Joe summed it all up by saying that Buffalo just happened to be “the right mix of game design and creativity” and Aristocrat has been able to build upon that recipe and player experience to pave the way for updates with fresh versions and interesting twists.

Which brings us to the phenomenon of Aristocrat Gaming’s immensely popular “Link” progressives that have taken casinos by storm with “Lightning Link” lounges, Dragon Link, and of course “Buffalo Link”, just to name a few.

Kaminkow revealed a provocative observation from a time travel perspective when he said “we’ve always had progressives in a casino but nobody ever saw anybody win. Maybe because the odds were pushed up so far that it almost looked like one of those things (the progressive jackpot) that was perceived as unattainable”.

Joe recalled when the “Majestic Lions” progressive machines were displayed across the gaming floor at MGM when it first opened.

“Each machine had a one-thousand-dollar jackpot, and, because there were so many of them, somebody was always winning – they got so much play. I think the Link games give you that experience today.

“You can be sitting next to your wife and she’ll win $20, then you’ll win $40. There have always been $20 and $40 wins before, but Link makes it a little more special, a little bit more fun. Aristocrat is the best at it. We really do it well.”

It seems long ago indeed in our time travels with Joe Kaminkow when he was the trailblazer in the slot industry to capitalize on licensing, or, as he put it, “the value of pop culture” and the fact that ‘60s TV shows remained relevant to generations.

“There was a little bit of licensing happening in the business at the time,” he recalled, “but I saw it as a perfect opportunity when video gaming came to be … using speech and clips which made a ‘connect’ with people a little bit more. It was really the right time for that innovation. Of course, TITO happened at the same time, and denominations went down to nickels and then pennies. It was the perfect storm for everything.”

One final time we climbed into the time machine to have Kaminkow look at what the future may hold.

Oh yes, almost forgot. “Back to the Future: The Musical”, which premiered in London and was the winner of the 2022 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical, will be arriving in New York on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theater in July of this year.

“I’ve been part of the whole show through my friendship with the leader of the production team,” Kaminkow said.

Wouldn’t you know Joe Kaminkow, a patron of the arts and the theater, has a connection? Let’s face it, any iteration of “Back to the Future” just wouldn’t be the same without him.

Nor would a trip through time be the same without the man who single-handedly changed the casino landscape.